Heartburn in Telluride as jury favors owner of undeveloped land
TELLURIDE There was heartburn aplenty in Telluride after a jury ruled that a coveted parcel of undeveloped land at the town’s entrance is worth $50 million.The town has been moving to condemn the property, to prevent any development. Estimates of the value had ranged from $25 million to $60 million, with representatives of the town arguing for the lower figure.The case has been in the works for about a decade. Last year, a compromise measure offered to Telluride voters would have allowed the owner of the 570 acres, Neal Blue, the right to develop some high-cost housing. In return, the town could have also built some low-cost affordable housing. But the remaining 91 percent of land would have been dedicated as open space.Although the town council, the school board, and the county commissioners all endorsed the compromise, the citizenry overwhelmingly voted against the compromise, or even further negotiations.Instead, the case was sent to jurors to set a fair price. Eleven jurors convened in Delta, a farming town located about two hours north, and came up with a price of $50 million, close to the $56.8 million value estimated by appraisers employed by the landowner, Neal Blue.The town has three months to secure the $50 million. It has $30 million in assets that can be devoted to the acquisition, plus private fundraisers have obtained pledges of $8 million.Less immediately, the town has legal bills estimated at $7 million. Also, if it does acquire the property, it will need an estimated $15 million for environmental restoration.The Telluride Watch says the valuation argument pivoted on what might likely appear on the property if developed. The developer’s representatives argued the valley floor property would yield seven-acre lots. Town representatives insisted that the property could be assumed to have only one lot per 35 acres, as Colorado law allows by right.Much testimony concerned estimated values of the property based on comparable properties at Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge and Jackson Hole.However, developer’s lead attorney, Darrel Waas, played to the lower-economic class sympathies of Delta in his closing statement. “It’s a playground, a playground for the super rich,” he said of Telluride It the town wants the land for a playground, he added, it will have to pay playground prices.The Telluride Watch offered two very different reactions.For Rob Schultheis, who has lived for several decades in Telluride, the news from the ‘jurors from Jerkwater Junction,” as he described Delta, one of many such colorfully unflattering sobriquets, was unsurprising. Delta, he said, looks down its nose at Telluride and its residents.In the 1970s, having license plates from Telluride while passing through Delta “all too often meant being pulled over on your way through that plug-ugly little burg and having your car searched on some bogus excuse or the other.”Seth Cagin, publisher of The Watch, had an equally stinging reaction-but one aimed at Telluride. When you gamble, sometimes you lose, and we’ve lost big time,” he said while ruing the town’s rejection last year of the compromise.Even if the money is found to pay the $50 million, he believes Telluride has lost land it desperately needed for affordable housing.”Where did we go wrong?” he asks. “Simply, environmental fundamentalism ruined us. In every debate we’ve had in the last decade, open space and reduced development trumped all other values,” he writes. Telluride, he says, has become “Beverly Hills in the mountains; Aspensouth. We are now a community of very wealthy second-home owners, a few very wealthy families who can afford to live here fulltime, a dwindling and aging populations of others who got in before the prices hit the stratosphere, and a small, static population of workers in subsidized housing. All of us are supported by a growing population of workers who commute long distances to their jobs or are undocumented immigrants living below the radar.”This is not the first time Cagin has trumpeted such views, or of his distaste for environmentalism that places the greatest emphasis on open-space.”What kind of environmentalism is this?” he asks. “Environmentalism that protects view corridors at the expense of forcing our workforce to commute enormous distances … “I am sorry to be so blunt, but what has passed for environmentalism in Telluride is not environmentalism at all. It is elitism, pure and simple.”The $50 million, he adds, could have been spent to save rainforest in the Amazon, to build a wind farm, or any other number of things. “To spend it on the Valley Floor when we could have had 91 percent of the same land for free is one thing only: conspicuous consumption.”Both sides may have grounds for appealing the decision. The landowner, despite getting a price close to his estimated value, had said he did not want to sell at any price.
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